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ICANN: the Secret Government of the Internet?

By Steven Hill

As our increasingly globalized world tiptoes towards experiments in globalized governance, the World Trade Organization is not the only newborn institution raising concern. In particular, commercial interests are beginning to pull at the hem of Internet governance, and the ramifications may be profound.

How many people have ever heard of ICANN, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers? Depending on whose description you read, ICANN is either an innocuous non-profit with a narrow technical mandate, or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes. And right now, March 7-10, ICANN is holding its international meeting in Cairo where important decisions regarding Internet governance are being made.

Here are a few facts: ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce in November 1999 to oversee a select set of Internet technical management functions previously managed by the U.S. Government. These functions include fostering competition in the domain name registration market (i.e. the selling of .COM, .NET and .ORG suffixes) and settling disputes over "cyber squatting" (the intentional buying of domain names like for later re-sale at exorbitant prices to the corporation).

That all sounds fairly bureaucratic and benign, but there's more to the picture than first meets the eye. And it's really got some watchdogs like the Center for Democracy and Technology and Common Cause worked up.

To understand the suspicion it's necessary to understand a bit about what is called the "root server", and the critical role ICANN plays in overseeing it. Servers are high-powered computers that function as the crossroads of the Internet, kind of like the neurons of our central nervous system, through which all email messages and requests to view Web pages get routed.

Whomever controls the "root" server can decide which other servers all Internet users worldwide will be directed to when they try to view any Web site address in the .COM, .NET and .ORG domains. Since ICANN controls the root server, it is technically feasible for this nearly anonymous organization to exercise a kind of life-or-death power over the global network, because presence in (or absence from) this chain of interlocking servers and databases is a matter of cyberspace life or death. If your domain name (, for instance) and Web page address cannot be found on the root server or its mirror servers, you simply do not exist.

This raises important policy questions that have the potential to go far beyond ICANN's narrow technical mandate. Take the following test, and see how you would resolve the following:

  • One anti-abortion Web site listed the names of doctors performing abortions and crossed them off as they were assassinated. Another Web site published the names of alleged British intelligence agents and put their lives and, potentially, British national security, at risk. ICANN now has the power to wipe out these Web sites, should it do so? And who should decide? How should ICANN balance anonymity on the Web - a key element of political freedom - with the right to know who is lurking behind a domain name?
  • There's a Web site called, and guess what? The authors of that Web site and the owners of that domain name specialize in slandering the slain civil rights leader. Is that free speech, or is that a violation of the "trademark," not to mention the legacy, of Martin Luther King?
Should ICANN have acted in the case of B92, the courageous and respected independent radio station in Belgrade that had its online identity - - taken over and used by Slobodan Milosevic and was left with no avenue for recourse?

In many instances, acting or not acting will have equal implications. ICANN must decide what falls within their scope of jurisdiction.

Bizarre as it may seem for a decentralized global network that supposedly "exists nowhere and everywhere," the root server and the various domain servers to which it points constitute the very heart of the Internet.

Anyone interested in controlling the rules under which activities on the Internet take place -- and many commercial interests, who now realize the huge economic stakes in the Internet, and many governments too, find that they are indeed quite interested -- is likely to find the existence of a single controlling point awfully tempting for imposing its will. Indeed, according to the New York Times, ICANN's policy-making process so far has been dominated largely by commercial and technical interests.

Not surprisingly, watchdog groups have proposed that, unlike the secretive World Trade Organization, ICANN's international board of directors should be publicly elected, and subject to public meetings and disclosure. Some within ICANN are embracing this call for elected representation and accountability, while others are resisting.

Don't let the global anti-democrats have their way. Find out more information by visiting the Web sites of Common Cause, the Center for Democracy and Technology or ICANN Watch. Any Internet user can become a member of ICANN for free and vote in a future election by registering at Also, ICANN has created an Internet forum where people can post their opinions at
Let them know what you think.

Here's hoping that ICANN makes a clean break from secretive unelected global organizations like the World Trade Organization.

Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is the co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press 1999). For more information, write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.

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